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2017 NFL Playoffs: 5 major thoughts about Patriots vs Steelers

The Patriots are going to have their hands full in the conference title game.

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The New England Patriots are hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC Championship Game in a battle between the two best quarterbacks in the conference. Here are my initial thoughts.

1. So many differences from Patriots 27-16 win in week 7

The Steelers started QB Landry Jones and he had a fairly easy time moving the ball against the Patriots defense. The defense buckled down by their goal line with an end zone interception by CB Malcolm Butler, along with five forced field goal attempts (two missed), but the group really struggled in the middle of the field.

The game featured CB Eric Rowe’s first start for the Patriots, along with a seriously reduced role for the now-smoking-hot CB Logan Ryan. LB Jamie Collins started the game, while EDGE Trey Flowers played the fewest snaps of the edge defenders. LB Kyle Van Noy wasn’t even on the team.

The Patriots offense is weakened by the loss of TE Rob Gronkowski, but the defense is playing better at every level. Times have changed.

Outside of Jones starting in the place of QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers OT Marcus Gilbert is back on the starting line, rookie DB Sean Davis has played more, EDGEs Bud Dupree and James Harrison are playing a lot more, and LB Ryan Shazier has also assumed a larger role after missing the four games prior to facing the Patriots in week 7.

In other words, the Steelers offense will have a major upgrade at quarterback, while three of the four Steelers linebackers are entirely different (with LB Lawrence Timmons the consistent factor).

2. Patriots will need a lot of help slowing RB Le’Veon Bell

Back in week 7, Bell rushed for 81 yards on 21 carries and added 68 receiving yards on 10 receptions (leading the Steelers). The Patriots did not do a good job against Bell, and yet the 149 yards from scrimmage represented a pretty average day for the Steelers running back.

Only two teams were able to hold Bell below 130 yards from scrimmage this year: the Dolphins in week 6 (108 YFS) and the Ravens in week 9 (70 YFS). Bell faced each team in the wild card round and in week 16, respectively, and trounced the familiar opponents for 174 YFS and 137 YFS, also respectively.

The Patriots defense is a lot better now than it was in week 7, but quality of opponent doesn’t seem to matter too much. Bell ran over the Dolphins and Chiefs in the playoffs, but they rank 22nd and 26th against the run in DVOA, respectively. He also ran over the Giants and Ravens, that rank 3rd and 5th against the run in DVOA. The Patriots rank 4th against the run in DVOA, so it should be a good battle.

3. The Patriots will also have to slow down WR Antonio Brown

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger only threw for 224 yards, but 108 of them went to Brown. TE Jesse James added 83 receiving yards, but outside of Brown and Bell, the Steelers really don’t have a receiver they can rely on to produce at a consistent level. So if the Patriots can slow Brown, they’ll go a long way to stifling the Steelers potentially potent offense.

Brown racked up 119 yards from scrimmage against the Patriots in week 7, which represented his 5th best game this season. The Patriots often leave CB Malcolm Butler to battle Brown on an island and it hasn’t been very successful- Brown gained 133 yards against Butler in the season opener of the 2015 season.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Brown’s three least-productive games came against the Bengals and the Dolphins, with a defense led by former Bengals coach Vance Joseph. The Bengals big strategy to limit Brown isn’t very complicated- they jam him at the line of scrimmage and give the cornerback help.

“We’ve done a good job of mixing some of the coverages up on [Brown], making sure we’re getting him up at the line of scrimmage,” Bengals DC Paul Guenther said after the 2015 season. “Too many teams I see on tape are giving him too much free access where he can just go out and run and make his cut and come out of the break. And he and [Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger] have such a good relationship there that the ball’s going to get completed most of the time. So we’ve got to do a good job of disrupting him out of his routes and not giving him free access up the field.”

New England should pair Logan Ryan, possibly the team’s best technician, against Brown, with safety help over the top, just like how the Patriots tried to neutralize Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins. If Butler is allowed to eliminate the Steelers #2 receiver- whether it’s Eli Rogers or Cobi Hamilton or Darrius Heyward-Bey- without much support, then the Patriots secondary can dedicate their focus on stopping Brown.

The Patriots also have to make sure they tackle Brown whenever he does catch the ball because his yards-after-the-catch ability is incredible.

4. QB Tom Brady dominates the Steelers defense

One of the main reasons the Patriots would rather face the Steelers than the Chiefs is that Brady absolutely dominates the Steelers defense- and Pittsburgh hasn’t really changed its defense since Brady entered the NFL.

The Steelers had coach Dick LeBeau serve as defensive coordinator from 2004-2014, before handing control of the defense the Keith Butler. Butler served as the Steelers linebackers coach from 2003-14, so his defense is extremely similar to that of LeBeau. This is a rare case where a player’s historical success definitely matters when evaluating future production.

In 11 career games against the Steelers, Brady holds a 9-2 record. He has completed 69.3% of his passes for 3,148 yards (8.26 YPA), 26 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. His passer rating of 113.7 is his best against any single franchise in the league.

The Steelers pass defense ranks 12th in DVOA, but they are 32nd (LAST!) against the opposing team’s #1 receiver and 19th against running backs. Look for WR Julian Edelman and the Patriots running backs to have a field day.

5. The Patriots and Steelers play in every dang AFC Championship Game

The AFC conference title game has featured the Patriots, the Steelers, or both teams in 14 of the past 16 seasons. Brady has led the Patriots to 11 conference title games over the past 16 years, so the stat might not seem as impressive, but it is. The only exceptions are 2002 (Raiders vs Titans) and 2009 (Colts vs Jets).

Here’s the list (Patriots or Steelers bolded):

2001: Patriots at Steelers
2002: Titans at Raiders
2003: Colts at Patriots
2004: Patriots at Steelers
2005: Steelers at Broncos
2006: Patriots at Colts
2007: Chargers at Patriots
2008: Ravens at Steelers
2009: Jets at Colts
2010: Jets at Steelers
2011: Ravens at Patriots
2012: Ravens at Patriots
2013: Patriots at Broncos
2014: Colts at Patriots
2015: Patriots at Broncos
2016: Steelers at Patriots

The Patriots have a 4-1 record in conference title games at home and a 2-3 record on the road, with both road victories coming at the expense of the Steelers. The Steelers are 2-2 at home and 1-0 on the road in conference title games.